Molière à l’Opéra
Stage music by Jean-Baptiste Lully
Luanda Siqueira, soprano; Jean-François Lombard, tenor; Jérôme Billy, tenor; Virgile Ancely, bass
Jérôme Correas, conductor
There are few episodes in music and literature history more fascinating than the collaboration of two geniuses as composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and playwright and actor Molière, nom de plume of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. Taking advantage of the development of the arts promoted by King Louis XIV, the “deux Baptiste” (“the two Baptiste”, as they were called by their contemporaries) staged a new and eclectic genre, the comédie-ballet, a work which combines all the stage arts: spoken theatre, music, dance, pantomime and acrobatics.
The comédie-ballet originated from an idea of Molière. He included instrumental music and dances in his performances from the beginning of his career, when he engaged a dancer and four instrumentalists in his first company, the Illustre Théâtre, formed in 1643. He later performed Pierre Corneille’s musical machine play Andromède and the Ballet des incompatibles and included string players in his first Parisian success, Les précieuses ridicules. His first partnership with Lully was a short one in 1661, when the composer wrote a dance for the comedy Les Fâcheux, while Pierre Beauchamps wrote the rest of music for lack of time. It was for the preface to this comedy that Molière expressed his theoretical position:
The design was also to give a ballet; and as there was only a small number of first-rate dancers, it was necessary to separate the entrées of this ballet, and to interpolate them with the Acts of the Play, so that these intervals might give time to the same dancers to appear in different dresses; also to avoid breaking the thread of the piece by these interludes, it was deemed advisable to weave the ballet in the best manner one could into the subject, and make but one thing of it and the play. But as the time was exceedingly short, and the whole was not entirely regulated by the same person, there may be found, perhaps, some parts of the ballet which do not enter so naturally into the play as others do. Be that as it may, this is a medley new upon our stage; although one might find some authorities in antiquity: but as every one thought it agreeable, it may serve as a specimen for other things which may be concerted more at leisure.
The collaboration with Lully started in 1663 and their ten works are among the most enduring examples of comédie-ballet. Music became more important as time went by, to the point that one of their last collaborations, Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) was criticized by the Gazette de Paris for the predominance of music, which made the plot almost accessory.
All the premieres were given at court as divertissements for several royal occasions, such as carnival celebrations, for the grades fêtes given at Versailles in 1664 and 1668 and for parties of the autumn hunting season. The king, fond of ballet, danced sometimes in the productions, giving his last performance in Les amants magnifiques in 1670.
The prolific and lucky partnership ended in the worst possible way. Lully and Molière quarrelled in 1671, probably because the playwright did not share with the composer the profits he made when he produced the works at the theatre of the Palais Royal in Paris. Molière later substituted Lully with Marc-Antoine Charpentier and with him he produced Le Malade imaginaire (1673), revised three times to avoid legal entanglements with Lully. This was the only comédie-ballet not to receive a court première and achieved great success. Charpentier provides also new music for earlier comédies-ballets (La comtesse d’Escarbagnas, Le mariage forcé and perhaps Les fâcheux).
I would like to remember that the “deux Baptiste” did not limit their collaboration to writing and composing because they frequently were on the stage as singers (they had basse-taille voice, which means they were both baritones), actors and dancers. It is known that Lully retired from stage performance in 1667 o 1668, probably in consideration of his age, but he obtained a great success few years later, when he appeared under the pseudonym of Il Signor Chiacchiarone (“the Garrulous Man”) in Monsieur de Pourceaugnac and in Le bourgeois gentilhomme.
Many other playwrights attempted to write comédies-ballets, but no one was able to equal Molière’s strict connection of music and drama. This is one reason why comédie-ballet fell out of fashion son after Molière’s death and why the next century counts few works labelled as comédie-ballet, with the interesting exception of Voltaire’s La princesse de Navarre with music by Rameau (1745). The lasting legacy of the genre is incidental music, which remained a feature of French spoken theatre until the XIX century.
Molière à l’Opéra. Stage music by Jean-Baptiste Lully reconstructs the story of the collaboration of the “deux Baptiste” offering a selection of music from La pastorale comique, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, Les Amants magnifiques and the masterpiece Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, with the addition of two contribution by Charpentier, the Ouverture from Le Sicilien and the piece La, la, la, bonjour from Le Mariage forcé.
Jérôme Correas, conductor of the ensemble Les Paladins, reveals his intentions in the booklet, making a consideration that it is worth to repeat here: «during the course of this recording I was often reminded of the anecdote about the young Louis XIV during a meal aiming bread pellets and salad in the direction of ladies’ hair creations: such a court as then in existence could not be as serious and unbending as it has been claimed, and our interpretation needed to take account of this dimension. Therefore, we have made broad use of the technique of “parlé-chanté”; this being in order to bring us closer to a more popular form of singing, yet one which is subtle and intricate in its search for contrasts, colours, and which always remains in close contact with the main text».
This quote explains the treatment received by the pieces of this recording, all submitted to the intentional exaggeration of words and music to produce a comic and even grotesque effect. An amazing example of this is a piece from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, À moi, Monsieur, where the overlap of the voices of all the four soloists creates an intentional noise, but not even this is equal to the mocking entry of the lawyers in La polygamie est un cas pendable from Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, where the instruments announces them with exaggerated pomp (and the chant of the first lawyer and the chat of the second are its worthy continuations). An exaggeration of different quality characterizes the next piece, Piglialo su, where the effect becomes funny and ironic.
The only exceptions to the comic praxis are the elegiac Quand l’amour à nos yeux from La princesse d’Elide, sang by soprano Luanda Siqueira (her voice is not particularly beautiful and has traces of vibrato, but she is charming anyway), and the sad Spanish aria Sé que me muero de amor from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, wonderfully sung by tenor Jean-François Lombard.
Molière à l’Opéra is therefore an original and amusing album, which combines the pleasure of learning something new about the collaboration of Lully and Molière to the listening of some fine and very well performed music.